Sep 14, 2018

Finding work happy-making

From Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, on p. 113-4 of my copy:

In 1991, the year Sedgwick was first diagnosed with breast cancer, Sedgwick's essay "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" was made notorious by right-wing culture warriors before Sedgwick had even written it. (They found the title in a Modern Language Association program and went to town from there.)

About learning she was ill just as the "journalistic hologram bearing [her] name" became the object of ugly vitriol, she writes: "I don't know a gentler way to say it than that at a time when I've needed to make especially deep draughts on the reservoir of a desire to live and thrive, that resource has shown the cumulative effects of my culture's wasting depletion of it."

She then names a few of the "thousand things [that] make it impossible to mistake the verdict on queer lives and on women's lives, as on the lives of those who are poor and are not white." This verdict can become a chorus of voices in our heads, standing by to inhibit our capacity to contend with illness, dread, and devaluation. "[These voices] speak to us," Sedgwick says. "They have an amazing clarity."

The way Sedgwick interprets it, it wasn't just her linking of a canonical writer with the filthy specter of self-pleasuring that struck her critics as depraved. More galling was the spectacle of a writer or thinker – be it Sedgwick or Austen – who finds her work happy-making, and who celebrates it publicly as such.

Worse still, in a culture committed to bleeding the humanities to death, along with any other labors of love that don't serve the God of capital: the spectacle of someone who likes her pointless, perverse work and gets paid – even paid well – for it.